Minneapolis restaurateur Kim Bartmann has been a provocative presence on the local culinary scene since February of 1991, when she opened Cafe Wyrd in Uptown. Cafe Wyrd is now Barbette, and that single spot has blossomed into an eclectic chain of local indie favorites.
This week, the Heavy Table's James Norton reviewed Bartmann's newest venture, a South Minneapolis restaurant called Tiny Diner.
Tom Crann: Kim Bartmann has a reputation for opening restaurants that stand out in a crowded landscape. What sets her collection of places apart?
James Norton: I think a lot of restaurant entrepreneurs either shoot for consistency across their restaurants — essentially creating a chain — or they create a mutually supportive ascending ladder of places, which is to say a casual joint, a bistro, and an upscale place for example.
What's interesting about Kim Bartmann is that she's built this eclectic archipelago of Minneapolis restaurants that have very different personalities and purposes and don't seem to fit into a larger pattern ... look at the LEED-certified reinvented Midwestern supper club Red Stag, or the classed-up food stand Bread & Pickle on Lake Harriet, or the performing arts space slash bowling alley that is Bryant Lake Bowl. They really cover a great deal of conceptual ground.
Crann: But surely the restaurants also share some common features?
Norton: Absolutely. A couple commonalities come to mind. The first is that they're always casual, and you feel comfortable right away. The second is that their menus range around a lot, in terms of price point and pomp. You can eat a Tuesday lunch or a Friday celebration dinner, and they're both equally plausible. I refer to Barbette in particular as the "Swiss Army Knife of Restaurants" because I have yet to find an occasion that it doesn't work for.
When I interviewed Kim Bartmann recently, she said she's interested in creating a room that a lot of different people feel good in. She wants to see a mix in her dining rooms.
Crann: Tell us a little about her latest restaurant, Tiny Diner. Is it cut from the same cloth?
Norton: It really is. First, you've got that casual approachability, and that versatile menu. Second, you've got the thoughtful twist that sets it apart from its cousins. In this case, the whole diner is built around the idea of permaculture.
The patio is kind of the heart of the restaurant - it's surrounded by a permaculture food garden, which is to say a garden that requires fewer human inputs (like water and fertilizer) and instead contains a number of interdependent and mutually supporting plant species. And the patio is roofed by a solar array that produces 4 to 6 typical houses' worth of electricity.
The menu, too, has a lot of connections to the land and to local farmers, and there are a lot of housemade touches. The restaurant does a great deal of fine work, for example, with pickled vegetables of all sorts.
Crann: The idea doesn't lack sophistication. Why did she realize it with a diner, and not, say, a bistro?
Norton: When I talked to Bartmann about it, she pointed out that diners have been fertile ground recently for culinary exploration in recent years — the Town Talk Diner in Longfellow was a good example, and the Delta Diner not far from Ashland, Wisconsin has built up a mighty reputation for a small place.
She also emphasized that she wanted it to be a place to eat - which is to say, sure, if you want to celebrate your birthday there, that's great, but it's built for people to be there a couple times a week. A diner is inviting, it's familiar, it's a place that's part of your everyday life.
Crann: Last but not least: How's the food?
Norton: Based on my visits, really nice. The restaurant is doing a "diner city of the month" exchange program, so when I went there were a number of Philadelphia-inspired dishes, including a Philly cheesesteak with a butterkase cheese sauce (standing in for Wiz) and shishito peppers.
The steak was velvet soft and tender, the cheese sauce had a great salt level to it, and it really worked as a whole. I also had a slice of housemade strawberry-rhubarb pie that I thought was really worth talking about, and I am a serious, serious pie hound. It had a great texture, and a great sense of balance.
And the deviled eggs with smoked whitefish, beets, dill, and yogurt looked and tasted like a million bucks, and cost six. It's a fun place to eat.